Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

My Big Shakespeare Blunder

I have a big confession to make.

For most of my life I did not understand one of Shakespeare’s most important and most famous quotes.

When I was a teenager, I read Hamlet, and I loved Polonius’ advice to his son: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

I loved the quote so much, I put it in my High School yearbook page.

A stain glass window representation of Polonius.
Wikimedia Commons

At the time, I thought it meant that in being true to myself, I would be a more honest person and a better person in society.

I also thought it meant that I should not let other people keep me from becoming the person I wanted to become.

I thought it was an optimistic eternal truth, like the ancient Greek adage “Know Thyself.”

I thought it meant that I should not deceive myself, and therefore I would not be a false person.

I thought that if I lived by those words, I would be a good person, a genuine person.

I thought it would help to build my confidence.

I thought it was the very best wisdom written by the very best of writers, Shakespeare.

Wow. Was I ever wrong.

It has taken many years for me to see the truth of how very wrong I was — and how much I had misinterpreted the quote.

It is now very evident to me that the last advice you should accept is that, above all, you should be true to yourself.

Why is this such bad advice?

Shakespeare did not put those words in the mouth of Hamlet, or Horatio or Ophelia — who are all truly good and decent people within the play.

No, Shakespeare put the advice in the mouth of Polonius — who is a hypocritical, selfish, conniving, deceitful, manipulative, cold-hearted bureaucratic toady.

 Hamlet devant le corps de Polonius Eugène Delcroix au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims.
Wikimedia Commons

When you think of Polonius, you would never describe him as genuine, or good, or selfless.

Therefore, why would we take the advice of such a bad man — a man who puts his own self interest above the interests of other people?

Polonius plots to “loose” his daughter on Hamlet — so he can spy on what Hamlet says. 

The word “loose” has a sexual connotation, as in “loose women”. 

So, is Polonius her father or is he instead her pander, her pimp?

No wonder Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide. She has a father who would use her to gain Hamlet’s confidence by seduction.

Hamlet may have been wrong to murder Polonius — but then Polonius should not have been in the Queen’s bedchamber, spying on them both.

Polonius’ son Laertes returns to take his revenge on Hamlet. 

But is Hamlet really to blame? Did he make Ophelia go crazy and drown her? No. She was driven mad by the madness at the royal court, and by the intense pressure to spy on Hamlet. 

Benjamin West, Ofelia e Laerte, 1792
Wikimedia Commons

Did Hamlet have good cause, or at least a plausible excuse for killing Polonius? Yes, he thought he was stabbing Claudius — who murdered Hamlet’s father.

So why does Laertes seek to punish or kill Hamlet — when he should try to determine the truth of their deaths?

Instead of patiently seeking justice, Laertes seeks quick revenge.

Well, with Polonius as his father and his teacher, Laertes can’t tell right from wrong, and wrong from right.

Polonius has taught his son to be rashly and blindly violent.

Polonius’ advice “to thine ownself be true” takes on a much darker meaning.

To Laertes, it means that he shouldn’t care what anyone else says. He shouldn’t listen to what Hamlet has to say in his defense. To Laertes, his father’s advice means that he should rush to judgement.

Laertes sees Hamlet as a false man — when Hamlet is the one true noble person in the entire tragedy.

Polonius’ advice has terrible consequences for everyone — including himself. He and his children all die.

Why did Shakespeare have Polonius offer this advice?

Because Shakespeare wanted to put lofty words in the mouth of the basest of men, and the lowliest of villains.

If there was a lesson that Shakespeare wanted teach, with this quote, it was to beware of hypocritical people.

Shakespeare did not want us to blindly accept what a man like Polonius says — or to live by the words of any mortal man.

Shakespeare did not want us to put our faith and our trust in men — in our leaders, in our social, economic or political superiors.

He wanted us to put our faith in God and God alone. He wanted us to live by the Word of God.

Shakespeare’s audience, in London circa 1600, was filled with God-fearing and church-going Christians.

As soon as they heard Polonius say “This above all: to thine ownself be true” they immediately understand what Polonius was really saying. 

They knew that Polonius was teaching his son to put himself before God. 

To Elizabethans audiences, only God is “above all”.

Shakespeare’s audience would have instantly understood that Polonius is a villain. They would have expected bad things to happen to him. They would have counted the minutes, eagerly anticipating his comeuppance.

When Polonius is finally killed, they would have probably cheered to see a godless man sent to Hell.

Regardless of how we feel today about religion and God, Shakespeare — as a 16th Century Christian who had to attend Church by law, who was living through the very tumultuous Protestant Reformation — had very strong feelings and very grave concerns about religion in England at the time.

Some people might say that Shakespeare was not religious, or that he was more concerned with secular matters than spiritual ones. They are wrong.

Why else would Shakespeare create a character like Polonius, who lacks a proper respect for God, if Shakespeare was not himself reverent?

Look at the whole of Polonius’ advice — he was advising his son on secular worldly matters, without regard to eternal spiritual matters.

He tells his son not to speak out of turn, not to misbehave, not to be too friendly but cherish good friends, not to start fights, not to borrow or lend money, etcetera.

These are all trivial and relatively inconsequential matters.

Nowhere in his advice to his son does Polonius say anything about how Laertes should be a good and obedient Christian.

In fact, Polonius blesses his son, as if Polonius has the power to bestow holy blessings. As if Polonius has taken the place of God in the lives of his son and daughter.

If Polonius had taught his son to be a faithful young man, then none of the other advice would be necessary. 

Laertes would not do anything bad, if he truly feared God’s punishment for doing wrong.

Polonius and Hamlet
Eugene Delacroix
Wikimedia Commons

Also, Polonius also advises his son: to “Beware / Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, / Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.”

Rough translation: Beware of getting into fights, but if you find yourself in one, make your opponent fear you.

Isn’t that ironic, considering how Laertes rushes into a fight with Hamlet?

So, not only is Polonius’ advice without moral value, it did not have the power to teach Laertes how to behave.

The point that Shakespeare makes is that Laertes did not heed this advice because it was worthless advice from a faithless father.

There is a deeper level to the advice that Shakespeare wrote for Polonius to say. Shakespeare is attacking the secular humanism and the moral relativism that was poisoning England at the time.

He was attacking men who presumed to put themselves before God — he was fighting against the teachers, lawyers, judges, nobility, bureaucrats, and many aristocratic members of the royal court.

Shakespeare was saying that Denmark was not rotten because of men like Hamlet — it was rotten because of men like Polonius.

For over 400 years we have been taught that Polonius’ advice to his son is good sound solid wise advice. 

That is not the point Shakespeare wanted to make. The Polonius he created was a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a man who seemed good, but was in fact bad.

Shakespeare did not want an England where men and women were raised to isolate and imprison themselves in their “ownself”.

He did not want young women to grow up with such moral and spiritual weakness that they could be crushed by anyone, even by their own parents.

He did not want Juliet to die, even if it was for love. He did not want Desdemona to be murdered by the man she loved. He did not want Anne to be seduced by King Richard III — the man who killed her husband and the King!

He did not want young women to grow up to become evil like Lady Macbeth or Goneril or Regan or Volumnia.

Shakespeare wants young women to grow up better than that.

Henry Lejeune - Ophelia
Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t want young men to grow up to be self-righteous hot-tempered thugs, who can be deceived into violence, even by their own parents.

He did not want Romeo to throw away his life. He did not want Othello to be deceived and commit murder. He did not want King Lear to go mad and destroy his kingdom. He did not want Prince Hal to banish Falstaff, who was a better father than Hal’s own father, the King!

He did not want young men to grow up to become evil like Iago or Macbeth or King Richard III.

Shakespeare wants young men to grow up better than that.

Look at Hamlet. The ghost of his father tells him to take revenge.

Hamlet can’t wait to do it: “I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge.”

But he doesn’t swiftly take revenge.

It is excruciating to watch Hamlet struggle with his decision whether or not to take revenge. But  Shakespeare is showing that it is better to be patient and examine the matter, than to rush to revenge a death — even if the revenge is justified.

Shakespeare wanted us to get out of our own heads, lower our defenses, and to stop looking down and dwelling on the hardship of our human condition in this sometimes cruel world.

He wanted us to come together, in a theatre perhaps, to see that this life is merely a test for eternity.

He wanted us to look up and contemplate the glory of our lives in a heavenly afterworld.

His Hamlet play is a cry for people to seek truth and justice not in ourselves, or in others — but only in God.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet play is a call to action, to know ourselves through God, and to know nothing unless He blesses us to know it.


David B. Schajer